No Politics Is Local: How America's Culture War Consumed Omaha's Race for Mayor

In what's expected to be a close election on Tuesday, major national figures have joined the campaign trail, sometimes bringing controversy over social issues with them.
by | May 5, 2017
A local resident holds a sign as he waits for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders to arrive at a rally for Omaha Democratic mayoral candidate Heath Mello. (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

Like a lot of Democratic candidates this year, Heath Mello is hoping that voter antipathy toward President Trump will help him oust a Republican incumbent.

Mello, a former state legislator, is running to unseat Jean Stothert in Tuesday's election for mayor of Omaha, Neb. Mello has encouraged voters to view the race as a referendum on the president, saying that even the mayor of Omaha must engage with the White House on issues such as immigration and the environment.

"Our opponent is trying to gin up support with that," says Dave Boomer, communications director for Stothert's campaign. "But I don't see people running to the polls because they're mad at Trump when they all know that a mayor of the city doesn't have anything to do with Betsy DeVos [the federal education secretary] or global warming."

Nevertheless, Boomer admits his campaign has also focused on some federal hot-button issues. For example, they're trying to take full advantage of a controversy over Mello's voting record on abortion rights, which prompted Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez to denounce Mello's stance last month.

"Have we publicized that? Oh yeah," Boomer says. "We've made hay out of that, I'll tell you."

Everyone expects the election to be close. In the April 4 primary, which featured five candidates and was technically nonpartisan, Stothert finished just 2 percentage points ahead of Mello.

At this point, both campaigns insist that the race has turned to the type of bread-and-butter issues you'd expect to matter in a municipal election -- pensions, property taxes and the size of the police force.

"As he knocks on doors across the city, people are really talking about infrastructure and potholes," says Avi Small, Mello's press secretary. "People are worried about economic development opportunities that have passed us by."

But both campaigns have brought in high-profile figures to stump for them since the primary, with Mello appearing alongside U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Stothert holding a rally with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

"Both Sanders and Walker may fire up the narrow political base of the hardcore partisans, but they don't do much beyond that," says Paul Landow, who teaches political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "People do care about potholes and streetcars and how many police are on the beat."

Landow, who served as a top aide to former Democratic Mayor Mike Fahey, says the appearance with Sanders was an error on Mello's part.

"To bring in a person that's seriously out of touch with most Nebraskans' social and political values was a mistake," he says. "It twisted the race toward the abortion issue, which obviously a mayor has nothing to do with."

As a state legislator, Mello supported legislation that curbed abortion rights, including a ban on the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy and a move to block Affordable Care Act funding from paying for abortions.

He has since softened his position. Mello says that while his faith leads him to oppose abortion personally, he also opposes the idea of defunding Planned Parenthood and has pledged to do nothing to restrict access to reproductive health care as mayor.

The idea that politicians can divorce their personal feelings from policy stances on the issue of abortion is not entirely uncommon. Nevertheless, Mello's stance has led national Democrats into an argument about whether every candidate must toe the party line on the issue. Perez has called support for abortion rights "not negotiable" for party candidates. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the U.S. House, responded this week that candidates shouldn't have to "rubberstamp" every position that the party takes.

"That was an issue imposed on the local debate by national players," says Douglas County Commissioner Jim Cavanaugh, who backs Mello. "Really, I don't know that it will be a deciding factor in this municipal election."

In Omaha, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, and Hillary Clinton carried Douglas County against Trump last November. Mello has the support of the local firefighters union, which is angry over Stothert's cuts to pensions and emergency medical units. Members of several unions protested the appearance of Gov. Walker, who ended collective bargaining rights for most public employees in Wisconsin. Mello has also drawn support by calling for the city to put a streetcar project on "pause" until it can get roads in better shape.

"Streets and streetcars have caught hold for Mello" as a rallying campaign issue, Landow says.

Mello complains that crime is on the rise, but Stothert says he's "cherrypicking" misleading statistics on the issue. Stothert is claiming credit for thousands of new jobs created on her watch, as well as a pair of property tax cuts.

But the state of the city's leading indicators may matter less than something more basic: how many people turn out to vote. Fewer than 30 percent of the city's voters are expected to participate in next Tuesday's election.

Maybe that's why both campaigns have looked beyond the city toward issues and surrogates of national importance, in hopes of motivating core supporters.

"It's a scrappy fight," says Landow, "between two really good candidates."